Fear and Loathing on the Gaza Border

Hamas is leveling for influence, and Egypt is getting fed up. Amid the broader regional issues, this shaky relationship has a trajectory of its own.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit announced this month he has completed writing his diplomatic biography. The three hefty volumes of the 68-year-old minister's memories apparently contain some surprises for Israel. In Egypt, however, someone hinted this week that the biography marks the end of Aboul Gheit's role.

Rafah crossing -Reuters, July 2010

Best not to hold your breath, though, because several more adventures still await Aboul Gheit before he finishes his tenure. Central to them are the relations between Egypt and Hamas, though it would be more accurate to describe what is happening between Hamas and Egypt as mutual loathing and suspicion.

The latest disagreement arose over the past two weeks due to a head-on clash between Aboul Gheit and Mahmoud al-Zahar, who is considered one of Gaza's pragmatists. In an interview with the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, Zahar said: "It is common knowledge that the Palestinian issue is not in the hands of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, but rather Intelligence. If the Egyptian administration wants us to sit with the Foreign Ministry, it should inform us."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki responded publicly: "Zahar is not a leader at all in the Gaza Strip and his status is no different from the status of anyone in Gaza, because the decisions are made by external Hamas."

He added: "Zahar thinks matters in Egypt are run they way they are in organizations and not in states." Zaki also accused Hamas of striving to draw Egypt into "the game of casting blame for the delay in the reconciliation process. Hamas has been doing this since the end of last year."

Thus far the Egyptian administration has been using commentators to make its thoughts about Hamas known. Zahar quickly denied his remarks about the Egyptian foreign minister and told the Al-Ahram newspaper that Al-Masry Al-Youm had distorted his words, but the latter newspaper posted a recording of the interview on its website.

A few days later "sources" in Hamas told the Egyptian media that Hamas is considering having France, Turkey or both handle the mediation between the Palestinian factions as well as the prisoner exchange deal with Israel - in place of the current mediator, Egypt. Egypt did not panic.

During his visit to France this week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and explained to him the essence of the difficulties between Egypt and Hamas. In the meantime France, which has been angling for a role in the diplomatic moves in the region, apparently does not intend to intervene in the conflict between Hamas and Egypt, which is continuing to show Hamas that it sets the rules.

In an interview published last Saturday with the London-based newspaper Asharq Alawsat, Aboul Gheit discusses how the Arab League intends to request the United Nations Security Council recognize the establishment of a Palestinian state. By this he means that if by September there is no progress in the negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel, this will be the league's next move. In the interview he says the state will be established on the basis of peace with Israel, the potential deployment of an international force in the territories, a fair solution to the refugee problem, and reliance on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative passed in Beirut.

The declaration of a Palestinian state is the last thing Hamas wants now, especially if it is based on the Arab initiative, which proposes not only recognizing Israel but also instating Arab forces to ensure its security. Worse still from Hamas' perspective: The declaration of a state will take away its lever for pressuring the Palestinian Authority.

Egypt is fed up with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's policy of stalling and the caprices of Hamas, which for more than six months has been refusing to sign the reconciliation document with Fatah that Egypt has formulated, thereby delaying Egypt's "liberation" from the burden of Gaza.

Egypt has informed Hamas that "[the Rafah crossing] will be opened when the occupation ends" and that Egypt is prepared to discuss fully opening the crossing point only when PA representatives show up on the Palestinian side, as stipulated in a 2005 Quartet agreement. Hamas is opposed to this agreement and considers it as part of the system of Israeli influence. Egypt itself did not sign that agreement. It has adopted it, but it is free to do whatever it wants on its side.

Since the flotilla incident, Egypt has indeed opened the crossing to Gaza Palestinians, and about 10,000 civilians were recorded passing through. However, it is not allowing free passage of goods. "This crossing point was never intended as a crossing point for goods," explained Aboul Gheit. Egypt does allow the passage of close associates of Hamas and delegations visiting the movement's leadership.

Fatah and Hamas received copies of the reconciliation agreement back in October 2009. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed it, while Hamas has been insisting on changes to some provisions on the integration of Hamas into the Palestine Liberation Organization and how elections are held in the territories. Egypt is not prepared to have the document changed, and blames Hamas for the delay.

Into this dispute comes the question of captive soldier Gilad Shalit. From time to time Hamas makes demands conditioning his release not only on the release of prisoners but also the opening of the crossing points, including Rafah, and the lifting of the siege. Apparently, though, this condition is aimed mainly at influencing Egypt to change the reconciliation document to give Hamas a greater chance of gaining control not only over Gaza but also over the PLO, and potentially affecting the election outcome down the line.

It is clear both to Hamas and to Egypt that reconciliation with Fatah is inevitable, because without it Hamas will not be able to translate its recent successes vis-a-vis Israel into political achievements, and that the considerable easings of the closure are diminishing the chances of additional show flotillas. A prisoner exchange deal with Israel could afford it another major achievement, but in the meantime it seems the shaky relationship between Hamas and Egypt is dictating a pace of its own.